True to self or play the market? – the South African challenge



Erica Elk

In response to the recent South African election, the director of Cape Craft & Design, Erica Elk, penned these thoughts as part of their newsletter’s editorial. While focused on the South African situation, they could apply more broadly to all ventures that attempt to bring the market to play in assisting cultural development.

She reflects on the speech that opened the recent DAC Craft Awards:

Minister of Arts & Culture, Pallo Jordan, gave an interesting and thought provoking speech. The comment that stuck in my mind, which I paraphrase, was that we must be careful not to bend too easily to the dictates of product developers and trend forecasters who tell us how to adjust our products so they are more ‘palatable’ to international markets.  The danger is that one day we may land up having sold our cultural heritage down the river, producing homogenised products that look like everything else in the world – which is basically what’s happened in the high streets of all the major cities around the globe.

Right now, one of the reasons why our products are so popular is because they are so different and innovative and creative and clever and capture the spirit of the people of South Africa. And we mustn’t lose this.  The Minister has a very good point. We should guard our heritage and indigenous knowledge. But that doesn’t mean we should not be sharp enough to play the market at its own game – or get trapped into thinking that culture and knowledge is static. Because both those approaches could be dead-end roads. So how do we manage this contradiction between staying true to self and playing to market forces? I think part of the solution is the critical interface between education, culture and trade and the respective roles played by the departments of economic development, trade & industry, arts & culture, recreation, and education at all tiers of government.

They need to work together – which doesn’t mean doing the same thing.  It should mean doing different things together – in synergy – towards a common goal. Arts & Culture programmes need to nurture creativity, heritage, language and identity.  They should promote, preserve and protect to create the foundation for challenge, growth, innovation, experimentation, exploration and play.  They must help us explore who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we are going to – individually and collectively. They must set standards of excellence and not settle for mediocrity.  And they must do so without being prescribed to by the markets.

Economic and trade programmes need to engage with supply and demand issues – the provision and purchasing of products and services.  They need to nurture entrepreneurs, create an enabling environment, deal with infrastructure and logistical blockages, they must also market and promote and create opportunities and make connections. And simultaneously our education system needs to work to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence of the youth – so that they can express their real selves and not an imposed idea of self.

Without all of the above our products will become homogenised, as our minds and aesthetic judgment are ‘colonised’ by the barrage of images and products from the rest of the world. We’ve lived for so long in a country where things have literally been reduced to black or white – good or bad – that we lose sight of the nuances and complexities of our various realities and experiences.

Instead of it having to be a question of EITHER/OR … what about if it could be BOTH/AND…? While sometimes we do have to make choices – thankfully only every five years and this one’s over! – for the remaining 365×5 days we need to live with opposites and contradictions and different ideas and opposing opinions and views. How we manage to live and thrive in this space will ultimately impact on our success. Right now, I’m really hoping that our newly elected government gets this message.

Reproduced with permission. Innovative South African craft will be represented in the upcoming World of Small Things exhibition with new work by Hlengiwe Dube.